THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING
Who Taught You to Drive

Pedestrians rule at bike path and street crosswalks

Bicyclists ride on the Minuteman Bike Trail in Arlington. Bicyclists ride on the Minuteman Bike Trail in Arlington. (Chitose Suzuki for The Boston Globe)
By Peter DeMarco
July 11, 2010

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Lots of good questions lately, so here’s another mailbag installment.

Bike path crosswalks
The Minuteman Bike Trail, built on an old railroad bed, crosses numerous streets from Cambridge to Bedford. Just about every crossing has a crosswalk, with signs ordering motorists to stop for pedestrians.

Arlington resident Beverly Douhan has also noticed stop signs on the bike path itself, instructing cyclists to halt at crosswalks. Each crosswalk is essentially a four-way intersection with signs in each direction.

“Who has the right of way, cars or bikers?’’ Douhan asked.

Officer Corey Rateau of the Arlington Police Department’s traffic division said that, first and foremost, pedestrians have the right of way both on the path and in crosswalks.

Bicycles are considered moving vehicles, however, so cyclists should stop for stop signs and wait until traffic clears before proceeding.

“If they want motorists to stop and yield to them, they need to dismount their bikes and walk across the crosswalk,’’ Rateau said. By dismounting, a bicyclist becomes a pedestrian, a rule that applies wherever the crosswalk.

Otherwise, “cars have the right of way, because they don’t have a [red] stop sign at the crosswalk,’’ Rateau said.

Whether bikers could actually be ticketed for running bike path stop signs, Rateau could not say. His department is not equipped to issue tickets to bicyclists, but will be in the future.

Double jeopardy
We all know that speeding fines double when you are ticketed in a construction zone. Recently, we also learned that fines double in Massachusetts even when the construction zone is inactive or shut down.

Reader Steve Goldstein of North Reading has a thought-provoking question.

“Why, exactly, are fines doubled in work zones?’’ he said by e-mail. “Is there any statistical evidence to show that crash or injury rates are higher there than on the roads generally? Is this law motivated in any way by actual data?’’

The particular statistic Goldstein is looking for is just not there, according to researchers, federal agencies, and transit safety organizations. The problem is, no one has tracked exactly how many miles of roadway are under construction a year and compared it with miles of road not under construction. If we knew those numbers, we could probably calculate whether there is a higher percentage of accidents and deaths per mile of work zone.

But even then we would not be sure, as police do not necessarily report whether accidents happen in work zones, said Jonathan Adkins, communications director for the Governors Highway Safety Association in Washington.

Still, death tolls and various studies suggest that speeding in work zones is a serious problem. Nationwide, 720 people, mostly motorists, were killed in work zones in 2008, the most recent year for which statistics are available. That number is actually lower than in previous recent years.

Hong Yu, , a research librarian at the federally sponsored National Work Zone Safety Information Clearinghouse at Texas A&M University, found several reports for me that allude to the dangers of work-zone driving. One study showed that crash rates on Chicago-area expressways increased by 88 percent in long-term work zones.

“Many road and bridge construction zones have altered lane configurations, lane shifts, and closures and a number of people working near live traffic,’’ explained Adam Hurtubise, spokesman for the Massachusetts Department of Transportation. “These situations can be unfamiliar to drivers, even those who drive those particular roads regularly.’’

Much is done to remind drivers to slow down. A five-paneled roadside wall emblazoned with the names of more than 1,300 people killed in construction zones travels the country. There is a safety-industry sponsored National Work Zone Awareness Week in April. In Illinois, cameras are positioned in work zones to automatically ticket speeders, while Maine sponsors a work-zone safety poster contest for fourth-graders.

According to the Governors Highway Safety Association website, 33 states double speeding fines in work zones. Several states go even further: Connecticut, for instance, doubles the fine for all moving violations in work zones.

“This year in North Carolina we lost a 22-year-old DOT employee setting up a work zone,’’ said Tony Dorsey, spokesman for the American Association of State Highway & Transportation Officials. “The driver was distracted, looking at a road map or something, and runs right into him. There was another guy in Maryland. He was picking up [equipment] in a construction zone and was killed by a hit-and-run driver. That’s why these fines are doubled.’’

What’s worse?
We’ve all heard the general rule that the lefthand lane is for passing and the right-hand lane is for traveling. But these are not steadfast laws. They depend on which road you are driving on and the discretion of police officers, among other things.

But if we assume that you are on a road where the rules are just this simple, which is the worse offense: cruising in the left lane or passing on the right?

“Though we both know neither law is enforced, do you know what the specified penalties are for each of the above infractions?’’ asks reader Wink Cleary of Newburyport.

Sure. Both violations are listed under Massachusetts General Laws Chapter 89, the “Law of the Road’’ section. Passing on the right is a $100 fine. Failure to keep to the right? Same thing.

Pick your poison.

Somerville resident Peter DeMarco can be reached at demarco@globe.com. He also updates a Facebook page, “WhotaughtYOUtodrive?’’